Ehlers on ice? Curious usage raises plenty of questions
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He is one of the biggest weapons on the Winnipeg Jets, a dynamic and highly skilled skater who can razzle and dazzle with the best of them. So, why has Nikolaj Ehlers been stapled to the bench so much lately, his ice time cut back to alarmingly low levels?
The answer, it turns out, is complicated. And likely controversial, depending on which side of the debate you fall.
Let’s start with the undisputed facts. Ehlers, 27, played just 11 minutes, 52 seconds in Saturday’s wild 7-5 win over the Edmonton Oilers. Of the 18 players in the lineup, only fourth-line forwards Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Saku Maenalanen and defenceman Kyle Capobianco played less.
One night earlier, in a 6-3 loss in Edmonton, Ehlers saw a season-low 10:48 of action, which was ahead of only Jonsson-Fjallby and David Gustafsson.
A curious development, to say the least, and one that had social media ablaze over the weekend.
“I mean, if you don’t play well, I guess you don’t play,” is how Ehlers initially answered a Free Press question about his recent usage. “So, I’ll keep working.”
At first blush, that seems to check out. Ehlers entered play on Monday night against the San Jose Sharks with just one goal and one assist in his past nine games, and nothing at all over his last five. He’s also a minus-five, with only nine shots on goal in that span.
There has also been a handful of noticeable turnovers.
That said, his advanced statistics (analytics) remain strong despite a lack of production, which has supporters so puzzled by his usage. First-line talent. Fourth-line minutes.
There’s been plenty of speculation Ehlers is still struggling from the sports hernia he suffered during the second game of the year in mid-October, which ultimately required surgery and kept him out of the lineup for three months. That’s a tough injury to come back from, especially for an athlete whose speed and explosiveness is such a critical part of the arsenal.
Could this be a case of less is more?
Ehlers didn’t exactly reject that theory.
“It’s still a work in progress,” he admitted. “You play every other night, you feel it. It feels good. But there’s definitely times you feel it a little bit extra. You know, I try to take care of it as much as I can with treatment and to work out and all that. I feel 100-per-cent good enough to play.”
Clear as mud, right? Then there’s the fact he missed such a big stretch of games, returning to the lineup when the rest of the league was already in mid-season form.
“You know, obviously you miss three months in the middle of the season, that is not going to help you,” said Ehlers. “But it’s up to me to get back and get ready and feel 100 per cent and good for these last games and the playoffs. It doesn’t really matter. I just need to be ready.”
Over to you, Rick Bowness.
The Jets coach said Ehlers — like the rest of the players on his team lately — has struggled to find consistency. Bowness didn’t particularly care for his game very much in Edmonton, for example, but he felt Ehlers was a lot better the next night at Canada Life Centre even if he wasn’t exactly rewarded for it.
“Well, you have to watch the game and see what we were doing,” Bowness explained.
“Mark (Scheifele’s) line, they had those early goals and got us going. Adam (Lowry’s) line was going against (Connor) McDavid. The (Gustafsson) line was playing really well on the forecheck. I really wasn’t happy with (Kevin Stenlund’s) game and I had a talk with him about that (Monday) morning. So, Nik’s ice time was really affected by that more than anything. The other three lines were going, their line wasn’t going as good as the other lines and because of the way of the rotation of getting Adam out there against McDavid, it cut into their ice time.”
With Pierre-Luc Dubois missing a third consecutive game owing to an injury Saturday, Manitoba Moose callup Stenlund lined up between Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. And that trio essentially became the fourth line by usage.
“It’s based more on that than anything else. We had the three lines going, I know there wasn’t great chemistry between Kevin and Nik, and I could see that,” said Bowness. “But I wasn’t going to tamper with the other three lines because they were all doing the job we asked them to do.”
Bowness was then asked if he’s hesitant to let Ehlers loose because of lingering injury concerns.
“No. No. He wouldn’t be playing if we didn’t feel he was close to 100 per cent,” he said. “Now, you miss so much time, the timing and the reads and everything else, that takes a long time. He’s never played with Kevin before, so that wasn’t in sync and I could tell that. So, now with Dubie back it gets a little easier to get him more minutes.”
Indeed, Monday provided some reason for optimism, with Dubois back in his usual spot at centre, flanked by Wheeler and Ehlers. The top line of Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nino Niederreiter remained intact, although Bowness said Ehlers could get a bump up to play with Scheifele and Connor at times.
Lowry remained with Morgan Barron and Vlad Namestnikov, while Stenlund knocked Gustafsson out of the lineup to skate on the fourth line with Maenalanen and Mason Appleton (returning from a three-game injury absence, shifting Jonsson-Fjallby to the press box).
Sam Gagner and Karson Kuhlman remained healthy scratches. With only Cole Perfetti left on the injured list, there’s now 16 healthy forwards vying for 12 spots.
Just as Bowness predicted, Ehlers was much more involved Monday, playing 14:47 which ranked seventh out of the 12 forwards in the lineup. He contributed an assist on Nate Schmidt’s go-ahead goal in the third period and finished with five shots on goal, which trailed only Kyle Connor’s six.
Bowness said there has been plenty of recent film study with Ehlers to remind him of what he does best.
“We sat down and went over his shifts the other day. That’s all I want him to do is carry that puck in as much as he can and circle that net and find those guys,” said Bowness. “That’s where he’s very good, and that’s exactly the conversation and exact video we went over the other day. In Edmonton, I thought there (were) a couple of times where he pulled up and turned it over when he could have kept skating.
“My purpose with Nik the other day was just to show him that, that you do have more time and you can keep skating and you can carry the puck in deep and find those guys, which is his strength. But again, when you haven’t played a lot and your timing and your reads are off, sometimes that happens. We’ll guide him through it.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Monday, March 6, 2023 9:41 PM CST: adds more info on Ehlers